I’ll start with a confession – I enjoy a long cycle, nothing too extreme but a century ride (100 miles) is a perfect chance to get out of dodge and clear my head from all the stresses and strains of modern life. For the past 3 years it has been my ‘thing’ and whatever the weather, I’ve got out once a month to satisfy my itch.
It was probably on one of these rides that the I first thought seriously about pushing myself far out of my comfort zone and entering LEL. LEL is the pinnacle of the Audax calendar in the UK. As a 900 mile ride up and down the country its not a something to be undertaken lightly – it’s only put on every 4 years to give organisers and riders a chance to recover and prepare for the next one.
I can’t claim to be a great story writer and if you are after a grand tale of disaster and despair you might be disappointed, but head to Day 4 for a full roller coaster of emotion.
Here is my experience of the first challenge I’ve undertaken when I’ve had absolutely no idea if I would finish or not.
Registration day – Loughton (Outskirts of London)
Having started in Edinburgh a 4 hour train took me down to London. Arriving in Loughton I started to see my first fellow participants. The multi-coloured jerseys in various languages looked out of place battling busy Saturday afternoon traffic.
Registration was a painless experience and I soon had my Brevet Card which stay around my neck until I have collected all required stamps.
The lack of a bike spaces on my train, meant I had to pick my bike up from Cliff, a fellow rider who met on the internet and trusted to transport my pride & joy to the start. I met him & my bike at the campsite and being a top bloke he drove me to my hotel, where my only task was fit mudguards onto my carbon speed machine and get some kip.
LEL has 2 options. Complete the 900 miles in 100 hours or 116hours, which given a Sunday start, means finishing on Thursday or Friday. Any thoughts of a relaxing ride were dashed when I realised that to get the family holiday that we wanted, I’d need to be back home for Friday, so a 100 hours it is.
On my long rides I’m usually fast enough that I should be okay but my longest ride was ‘only 300’ miles I had no idea of if I would be able to maintain that pace.
My equation was 60 hours on the bike at 15 mph which would allow for 40 hours for eating, sleeping & faffing. If you say it quickly it sounds straightforward. There was one even bigger challenge though – I couldn’t ‘break’ myself. I needed to be in a fit state to go on holiday and be a active parent…
With a 7am start time (& 11am Thursday finish time), I wanted to get the 250 ‘flatish’ miles to Thirsk on Day 1, the next 200 ‘hilly’ miles to Edinburgh on Day 2 and then have 2 1/2 days to crawl back to London. I had train home booked for 3pm Thursday, that I couldn’t miss. My thinking was that where ever I woke up on Thursday morning, I should have time to get a train to Kings Cross by 3pm.
To incentivise myself to get to Thirsk and to guarantee a good night’s sleep, I booked a Premier Inn.(I might be too soft for Audaxing…). Getting home to Edinburgh on Monday night would be my next goal.
Day 1 : Loughton to Thirsk
Waking early, I have some porridge in my room and then set off for the 6 miles to the start. Having thought London was flat, it was a bit of a surprise to have to use granny gear to climb Motts Lane. After a nice descent, it was even more of a surprise to find myself back at the bottom of Motts Lane where I started from. Back into granny gear and this time on a mission to get to the start before my start time.
I made it with 5 minutes to spare but with a tough choice to be made. Get some (more) breakfast and start with the next group in 15 minutes or just go for it. I decided I would be ruing my error for the whole day if waited and so I got into the starting and got ready to start.
And we were off…
Stage 1: Loughton to St Ives: 62 Miles 19.3mph
All the preparation and training had come down to the simple task of turning the pedals.
Heading away from the school, the bike next to mine is making a strange grating noise from rubbing mudguards. A rider quips that it will get annoying, and almost immediately the noise changes into a grinding noise followed by air escaping in a hurry. Someone’s ride had started badly.
Our group soon whittled down to around 10-15 riders being pulled along by a strong Luxembourg rider. His pal settled into the group and when I chatted to him he said his friend was having a good year and he was going to ride his own pace – if anyone wanted to follow him he was fine with it. The only problem was he didn’t have the best navigation. A couple of times he missed a turn and we’d have a shout from someone paying attention, leading to riders heading in all directions to avoid hitting each other. Slowly we get back on the track and the frenetic pace resumes.
I do a short turn on the front but all too quickly someone is disappointed with my pace and comes past. It’s the first time I’ve ridden alongside people on aero bars. If you see the person on the front lean forward onto their bars, you know it’s about to become hard work to keep up…
I’m starting to get hungry and eat all my emergency food. I foolishly packed my Soreen loafs and flapjacks into the Drop Bags and have very little with me. I push on to keep with the group and hope can get to St Ives before I bonk.
Arriving in St Ives a local rider sprints off down a backstreet. I take a chance and follow him, which causes consternation in the group who don’t know whether to follow or stick to the formal route. The shortcut pays off and we avoid several traffic lights and get to the control ahead of the group, and I quickly head for food.
Stage 2 : St Ives to Spalding 38miles 17.9mph
I see some fellow riders start to head to the exit so I join them and realise my rookie mistake. I haven’t filled my waterbottles, doing delays me and I leave in a tizz trying to find a group to work with. Just out of town I miss a turn, thankfully I get a shout so stop and try to work out what I had done wrong with my garmin. The weaker of the 2 Luxembourgers stop with me. I figure out we should have turn but have now lost the few riders we were with.
I feel responsible so do a massive turn on the front to pull the 2 of us back onto the wheel a stronger rider. We make it but salvation is short as the faster rider see a bigger/stronger group ahead and wants to chase. We try our best to keep up but it is in vain and even the 2 of us soon part company as he stops for a break. I stop in Crowland to photograph the 3way bridge and ride solo into Spalding and another meal.
Stage 3 Spalding to Louth 51miles 17.8 mph
Having filled my bottles when we arrived, I’m ready to leave when a small group head to the door. Having survived the many traffic lights of Spalding, we’re soon out into fens again. The group works well and we are cracking along nicely.
At one point I notice the Japanese rider’s light has slipped and is gently banging into his spokes – nothing too serious but worth sorting before too long. I mention this to him as we are cracking along. His reaction is to slam on his brakes and sort it. I feel bad that he’ll likely lose the group as getting back on a fast moving group on his own is remote. Fortunately for him, we have to shortly have to stop at some lights and he is able to rejoin. I am much relieved.
The rhythm is only broken up by a thunderstorm and a sharp hill outside of Louth, which was quickly followed by a murderously close and fast pass from an oncoming pickup truck on a single track road. He could see us clearly but seem to take delight from forcing us off the road. A great ‘Welcome to England’ for our overseas visitors.
Stage 4 : Louth to Pocklington 60 Miles 16.0 mph
We reform the same group on leaving Louth, but there is lots hanging around while various people deal with drop bags and other faffing. I bit frustrating but should be worth it if we stick together.
Leaving Louth is still hilly and the heavens open. One hill is awash with so much running water all across the road it’s impossible to keep dry. Following the rider in front means a face full of spray from their wheel, but taking a different line will mean deeper surface water, so I ride off the front of the group in the hope of taking my own line will keep me dryer. It didn’t work – I was soaked.
The hills were an unexpected part of Lincolnshire. As we crest each one, we’d scan the horizon for the towers of the Humber bridge but we were disappointed repeatedly. After what seems like an age it eventually appears in front of us and after another wrong turn we arrive at the ramp for the obligatory photograph.
The group stays together ticking off the miles as the evening draws in. Approaching Pocklington, thoughts turn to where people are sleeping. Many seem keen to keep going through the night until they are ‘properly’ tired, so were going to stop long enough to eat and sort themselves out for a long night ahead. Knowing I would stop at Thirsk I was keen for a quick stop at Pocklington and making the most of the remaining daylight. I secure agreement from Lawrence that we would be stick together..
Stage 5 : Pocklington to Thirsk 43 miles 14.8 mph
After a quick pot of pasta, we set off together and discovered a slight issue. I hadn’t managed to get my Garmin to light up at night (to be honest I hadn’t tried that hard) and Lawrence only had directions on his phone as was saving his battery. No worries… I had printed out the route sheet, which I could read using my front light.
The route took us down some tiny roads in the increasing darkness, which gave us chance to check our lights were good enough. If anything my lights were too good and the piece of paper just in front of them was too bright to read, but it seemed to be working and before long we amongst the Howardian Hills. A series of leg sapping inclines past huge monuments to finish the day, but chatting away in the darkness they soon pass and we start to dream of the bright lights of Thirsk.
We get slightly worried when crossroad after 6km doesn’t appear and we wonder where we have gone wrong. Without stopping I try to check the route sheet and see it is actually 16km so we plough on and after a while we reach a T junction!! Panic sets in as we realise we are off route – there was a left turn after 3km that we missed. Looking around we see that the road left is the main A170 signposted to Thirsk, so we take it hoping we didn’t add too many miles by our error.
Traffic is light and we at soon back in our rhythm chatting away in the darkness. We start to see warning signs for Sutton Bank, a 25% descent into Thirsk that is notorious for caravans getting stuck on. I’d driven up it the last summer so knew it was quite a climb, but we were going to descend it so all was good and we start to count down the milestones to Thirsk.
After a couple of miles we realise that we have been climbing and we see a car pass us and continue to climb for a long way until it goes out of sight. We don’t have a choice, we are on the road to the Thirsk, we don’t know another route, we just have to push on and hope the top comes soon. 7 Miles and 750ft of climbing later we crest the top and squeeze on the brakes to keep in control on the way down.
We crawl into Thirsk at Midnight and head for some food, where the riders we left behind in Pocklington are eating again. I try not to be despondent, it could have been much worse. I’d made my day 1 objective and was generally feeling okay, a little saddle sore (mainly because in all the Day1 excitement I forgot to reapply Chamois cream, D’oh), but on the whole happy with my lot, especially when I climb into my Premier Inn bed for some sleep.
Day’s Total : 265miles
Day 2 : Thirsk to Edinburgh
Stage 6: Thirsk to Barnard Castle 42miles 15.2mph.
I awake before my alarm having had 5 hours sleep in a luxurious bed and think of getting back on the road. Any thoughts of a quick get away are thwarted by my poor attempts at re-tieng my drop bag which I’ve filled with too much stuff and I waste a good 15 minutes in befuddle daze before I give up and head back to the control for some food.
The control is quiet and I head out alone in the morning sun. There are a few riders but not at my speed. I pass one, only to miss a turn and have to overtake her again, slightly embarrassed the 2nd time. I really shouldn’t have turned the beeps off on my Garmin.
Pretty uneventful leg and before long I’m crossing the Tees and heading into Barnard Castle Control, my mind clearly on the climb of Yad Moss ahead.
Stage 7: Barnard Castle to Brampton 52miles 13.5mph
Now on familiar roads I head out of the Control and into a cross/headwind as we climb the long long climb of Yad Moss. There’s not many riders around and I’m happy enough with my pace, which I’m managing by watching my HR and keeping at a steady number. I try not be put off by being overtaken and know that we still have a long day ahead of ourselves.
I pass the time on the 90 minute climb (1,200ft over 14miles) by counting the snow poles and guessing how many I’ll pass before the top. My first guess is 70, but I get to 199 before I finally crest the summit and head down to the cobbles of Alston and on to Brampton.
Stage 8: Brampton to Moffat 47 miles 15.6 mph
A head out alone and thankfully my pride stays in tack as I get onto the Scottish loop before the first Southbound riders passes me. I stop at the border for another obligatory photo which I ask some German tourists to take. They can’t quite believe how far I had come, and to be honest neither could I.
Mostly I was alone on this leg but on familiar territory I didn’t mind too much. There wasn’t much for it but to get my head down and crank out the miles. Moffat control was a welcome relief to the boredom from the B7076.
Sitting down on the low bench to take off my shoes was a challenge. My lower back was very sore and gave me some concern, but I was focussed on getting to Edinburgh for the night, ideally before nightfall…
Stage 9 : Moffat to Edinburgh 50 Miles 15.2 mph
Back on the road at straightaway up onto the Devil’s Beeftub, a 6 miles climb up the side of the valley with a very steady gradient. It’s a lovely climb, if that is possible, picking a gear and a steady HR you just tap out the revolutions required until the crest appears and then you have a long long descent into the Tweed valley.
The evening sun was interspersed by some rain showers and rainbows and I was happy enough to ride on my own on familiar roads, knowing I’d soon be back in Edinburgh. There were only a couple of other riders on the road and I up the pace to chase down their red lights only to be disappointed that their speed isn’t compatible to mine.
One red light stubbornly refused to get any closer but the chase keeps me amused as we reach the outskirts, where I chanced across a friend on their motorbike just as I made the catch. We exchange greetings as best you can at 18mph. I wasn’t for slowing until I had got to the control and I had been fixated on getting there for 10pm, doing repeated equations of the average speed required to make it. The meeting bursts my LEL bubble a little – a reminder of a life outside of cycling and eating…
The excellent Loanhead railway path was a breeze and we sail through the city’s outskirts with ease and are soon at the Control a couple of minutes before 10pm (I find out later the Edinburgh controller had arranged for the many chicanes to be removed – thanks Martin).
Another familiar face is on duty outside the control and we chat as I lock up the bike for the night. Taking my shoes off now becomes a major issue, I struggle to bend and my lower back is in agony. Getting into a taxi becomes my biggest challenge of the day.
The Taxi driver can’t comprehend 450mile/ 39 hour journey from London and even more amazed, having seen the state of me, that I was planning to get on my bike in the morning to repeat the journey south…
Day 3 : Edinburgh to Thirsk
Stage 10 : Edinburgh to Innerleithen 27miles 12.2mph
6 hours sleep in a comfortable bed leads to my first epiphany of the day. Realising that situations like my sore back was exactly why I had been carrying ibuprofen with me. The mental boost of having a ‘plan’ to keep going gets me going again and I return to the control for breakfast.
I know I’ll have a long day of hills ahead of me but LEL was never going to be easy, so I head out into the rain and head South. The early morning traffic seems incongruous to the past 2 days, which mainly avoided any busy roads, but soon we are on the quite roads heading for the Granites. The Granites is another lovely climb on a wide road, steady gradients and fine views over Edinburgh. The only problem is that the climb to the ‘start’ of the climb is same height as the climb itself but made up of fiddly little inclines on windy roads that I couldn’t get into a rhythm for. I try not to get disappointed with my slow progress…
With no other riders around, the climbs pass slowly, but eventually, I get to Innerleithen and a chance for 2nd Breakfast. I chat with, Ulli, one of the volunteers I know and complain of my sore back, which I put down to lowering my stem a month before to try to get a more comfortable position on my saddle. My 2nd Epiphany comes when she asks if I can change my position back. I wouldn’t do anything rash but give it some thought…
Stage 11 : Innerleithen to Eskdalemuir 31 Miles 12.5 mph
The climb out of Innerleithen (Paddy Slacks) was the scene of my first ever sportive in 2013, which was a infamous for the biblical rain and despite puncturing twice (with only one spare tube) I thoroughly enjoyed. Reminiscing helped the miles pass and whilst there were some other riders about, I was happy to go my own pace on the hills.
The peace allowed my to consider my options for riding positions. My back was still giving me gyp and I doubted I would finish if I carried on without changing something – I would certainly fail the ‘don’t break myself’ test. But, if I changed the stem, the risk was that I’d not have a comfortable saddle. A comment from Astronaut Chris Hadfield came to mind – In a crisis work out “what’s the next thing that’s going to kill us’. To me the next thing that would stop my ride was my back – I had to tackle it. I’d deal with any saddle issues if & when they arose.
At Eskdalemuir, I head to the mechanic’s stand and it’s fairly painless to return my stem to its previous height.
Stage 12 Eskdalemuir to Brampton : 35miles 14.1mph
To be continued….